Rev. Sarah Buteux
June 20, 2021
To watch this morning’s service click here.
March 18, 1990. It was a dark and stormy night. Maybe not on the streets of Brookline, but certainly on the canvas as it was lifted off the wall of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Rembrandt’s “Storm on the Sea at Galilee,” along with 13 other masterpieces, was stolen 30 years ago in the largest art heist in U.S. history.
On that fateful night, security guards were duped into allowing two men disguised as police officers to enter the museum. They tied up the guards, absconded with the art, and the rest is history.
No one knows who stole it. No one knows who sold it. No one has ever been caught. No one has ever confessed. The greatest mystery in the contemporary art world has yet to be solved.
But the deeper mystery, for me, lies at the heart of the painting itself.
In a stunning play of light against dark, Rembrandt’s “Storm on the Sea at Galilee” captures the fear of the disciples as the wind and the waves threaten to overwhelm their boat. The faces of the terrified fishermen are illumined against black clouds and a stormy sea, while in the softer shadows one terrified disciple is drawing his hand back from Jesus, whom he has just awoken.
Rembrandt draws us deep into the storm before the calm. You can almost hear the sail ripping free of the clamp, the wood creaking under the strain, the cries of the men as they try and fail to hold themselves together. One disciple is actually vomiting over the side of the boat.
With nothing but paint and precision, Rembrandt makes palpable the hopelessness, the chaos, and the overwhelming fear of that moment right before Jesus stood up and uttered the words:
“Peace. Be Still.”
Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.
Jesus said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’
And they were filled with great awe and said to one another,
“Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
“Who” is a good question, but it’s not my question. I have no problem with the idea that Jesus was God incarnate. I have no trouble believing that Jesus carried within him the power to calm the waves and still the storm. The mystery, for me, the mystery lies not in the power of what God can do, but in the fact that God does not use that power more often.
What are we to make of a God who sometimes shows up, but most of the time doesn’t? A God who intervened in miraculous ways back then, but now, not so much? A Jesus who occasionally appears on the back side of someone’s grilled cheese but can’t be bothered to stop the slave trade or the holocaust? Does God care when we are perishing, or not?
It is a dangerous question. The sort of question that can suck the faith right out of you. But just because we don’t know or maybe can’t know the answer, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ask…because the truth is, whether we ask or not, we still wonder. And not for nothing, but we always have.
There’s a reason the psalms are as relevant today as they were when they were written. There’s a reason people still read the book of Job. Do you know that almost a third of the psalms are laments? In fact, Psalms 35, 69, and 107 could have been written by the disciples in this very boat. “Wake up,” O God, cries the psalmist. “Rescue me from sinking …Do not let the flood sweep over me, or the deep swallow me up” (Psalm 35:23, Psalm 69: 14-15).
Mark himself might have prayed the very same thing. This gospel, so full of miracles that display the awesome power of God, was written right around the time of the Jewish revolt in 70 C.E. that led to the destruction of the temple. If God were ever going to intervene in human history, that would have been a good time.
But God was silent as the Romans tore the the temple apart, stone by massive stone. God did not wake up when the Holy of Holies was desecrated any more than God stirred when God’s people were being slaughtered and scattered. Where was God then? Did God not care that they were perishing? Why did God allow the deep to swallow them up?
Sometimes I think it might have been easier to believe in God if you lived in Biblical times or even, like Mark, just a generation after Jesus. But then I think of Mark gathering these stories of Jesus calming the storm and raising the dead, even as the world around him burned, and I realize there was nothing blind about the faith of whoever wrote this gospel.
This gospel was written by someone who believed in the mighty power of God and yet had to make peace with the fact that this mighty power was, more often than not, withheld from the very people who believed in it most.
Do you feel the tension in that? Do you feel it in your own life? In your faith? Well, I want you to know that Mark did too. Because, I think when you acknowledge that, some really interesting things begin to emerge in the text. Not answers per se, but maybe better questions or at least a broader awareness of what God is up to.
What I’m about to share with you isn’t easy to understand. I’m not really sure I fully understand it myself. But at the heart of this mystery is the question of how God uses power, and a closer look at Jesus shows us that it not the way we want, because it’s not the way we think power is meant to be used.
See if you can follow me here:
One of the well known aspects of the gospel of Mark is something called the, “The Messianic Secret.” For a large part of the gospel, Jesus doesn’t want anyone to know who he really is. Because, you see, Jesus is on a mission, a mission to proclaim that the kingdom of God has drawn near and the time for change has come.
But everywhere he goes with the message he encounters people in dire need and Jesus – being Jesus – heals them. He heals them because he cares. He heals them because he can. He heals them because he is moved by compassion and wants to help… because sometimes healing is where you need to start.
But very quickly, the healings begin to get in the way of the bigger thing he is trying to do. The miracles draw too much attention or the wrong kind of attention. So much so that by the end of chapter 1, after Jesus heals someone, he almost always asks them to keep quiet about it. It would seem that Jesus isn’t here to attract people with his divine power but with his divine message.
I think that is why he actually comes across as kind of annoyed in our story for this morning. Did you pick up on that? When he asks the disciples – in the midst of deadly storm – “Why are you afraid” and accuses them of having no faith, it’s kind of harsh.
But if Jesus is trying to keep his divinity a secret, it also makes sense. Mark tells us at the outset of this section that Jesus got into the boat, “just as he was.” It’s a strange detail that seems to emphasize just how tired Jesus had become after a long day of teaching. It’s a detail that emphasizes his limits. He comes across as small; an all too human leader who is worn out and needs to rest.
So when his ability to calm the storm outs him as something more, Jesus is not happy about it.
You see, calming the storm, as amazing as it is, doesn’t prove anything. Not even to the disciples. It’s just throws them into more fear and confusion. And Jesus knows it.
Because here is the strange truth about miracles, or any display of Divine power in the scripture or even in this life: Miracles don’t necessarily make people believe more or better. You might think that they would, but miracles don’t necessarily lead to change in a person’s heart, change in their life or their behavior. More often than not, they just freak people out. A miracle might make a person better, but it doesn’t necessarily make for a better person.
And ultimately, Jesus has not just come to heal bodies. Jesus has come to heal hearts. Heal the hearts of individuals, heal the heart of humanity, heal the hopes and fears that lie at the heart of how we structure our life together. Jesus has come to show people that the secret to a good life, a holy life, a godly life, is not to amass so much power that no one can harm you – because death is going to get you in the end no matter what.
No. The secret is to pour out our power so that we stop harming one another. Jesus wants us to realize that this mortal life is hard enough as it is without us making it one ounce harder on each other by oppressing, exploiting, or killing one another. Especially when we could be using that very same energy to lift one another up and help each other thrive.
And in Jesus, God is trying to go first. In Jesus, God is trying to show us the way. In Jesus, God is trying to live in solidarity with us, rather than in power over us. And that is weird. It just is. And it’s not what we think we want.
We want a God who will come and make it all better for us. Instead we get a God who shows us, in Jesus, how to make it better for each other. And that doesn’t always compute.
We … find the idea jarring,” says David Roberts, “because we misunderstand what Divine power is (like). God isn’t in the business of controlling things like the weather, because that isn’t in the nature of God’s power. God’s power is something stranger, more paradoxical. Instead of enforcing control and solutions onto the world, God’s power is revealed in coming alongside us, journeying with us, suffering with us, and staying with us in the boat when the storms come.
(The power to calm the storm, he says,) isn’t the (sort of) power Jesus came to demonstrate, but (the sort of power he came to) give up. The miracle (and the mystery) is not that God can calm the storm but that our God wants to come to us and be with us in it. That God is trying to empty God’s self of that power and be with us in the boat. Be with us in life, be with us in our mortality (https://www.patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson/2015/06/1804/).
Why? I don’t really know. My best guess is because it must have been the only way to fully heal us – heal our hearts – and make us a whole. Hurt people, hurt people…but healed people, healed people can help heal the world.
And yet, there is still so much I don’t understand. I don’t know if God can’t intervene when we cry out, or if God simply won’t. All I know is that God doesn’t. At least not always. All I know is that God doesn’t make it all better all of the time.
God doesn’t prevent evil and suffering. But God does come to us in the midst of it and show us how to turn our suffering into compassion for one another. God does comes to us in the midst of it to re-assure us that we are not alone. God comes to us in Jesus, because in God’s own mysterious way, that is how God shows us that God still love us.
In her book, “Everything Happens for a Reason And Other Lies I’ve Loved,” Kate Bowler explores what it is like to live life in the face of catastrophic illness. She has incurable but treatable stage 4 cancer. Which means she is not going to get better. Kate knows what it is to be caught in the storm. And yet she writes, with an almost bemused clarity:
At a time when I should have felt abandoned by God, I was not reduced to ash. I felt like I was floating, floating on the love and prayers of all those who hummed around me like worker bees, bringing notes and flowers and warm socks and quilts embroidered with words of encouragement. They came like priests and mirrored back to me the face of Jesus. When they sat beside me, my hands in their hands, my own suffering began to feel like it had revealed to me the suffering of others, a world of those who, like me, are stumbling in the debris of dreams they thought they were entitled to and plans they didn’t realize they had made.
…It (may) seem too odd and too simplistic to say (but I know this to be true) – that when I was sure I was going to die, I didn’t feel angry. I felt loved.” (p 121).
On the second floor of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, in the place where the Rembrandt used to hang, the frame remains… empty. The mystery of where the painting has gone has yet to be solved.
The mystery at the heart of the painting persists as well.
But so too, does the love: the love of a God who gave it all up to join us in this boat. The love of a God who sails with us even still. May that love be enough, enough to see us through, enough to see us all the way to that other shore. Amen.